Operators and marketers are closely tracking any effect Facebook’s new Graph Search might have on restaurant referrals and word-of-mouth, but so far the new search function mainly puts the onus on brands to continually refine their Facebook engagement strategies, they said.
Graph Search, a new function Facebook rolled out in a beta test to a limited number of people on Jan. 15, allows users to find, among other things, pages of businesses, such as restaurants, that their friends like while using search criteria such as a city or state. In addition to restaurants their friends like, users also could find Facebook photos taken at restaurants or recent check-ins posted to friends’ pages.
Experts speculated that Graph Search could complement search engine optimization strategies or perhaps lessen the influence of other online sites like Yelp.com if it achieves enough scale, though it is too early to know for sure.
“It will be interesting to see if Facebook gets a widespread behavior change and gets people to use it often for search,” said Dana Arnold, director of public relations and social media for Madison, Wis.-based Hiebing, the agency of record for quick-service chain Culver’s.
So far, Facebook has not opened Graph Search to brands looking for paid opportunities, Arnold said, so the operative strategy is to keep interacting with Facebook fans to get their likes, comments and shares, which would ultimately lead Culver’s and other brands to show up in results when someone looks for “restaurants my friends like” in Graph Search.
Hiebing is currently managing Culver’s “Mini Resolutions” Facebook sweepstakes to promote the chain’s Mini Concrete Mixer.
“If we look at how traditional search outside of Facebook works and try to apply that within Facebook, then we know we’ll need to have people engaging with us,” Arnold said. “We need likes and shares, and we need our EdgeRank score to be high, and we do that through compelling daily content and large promotions, which is what we’re seeing with Mini Resolutions.”
Thinking more locally
Joe Sorge, chief executive of Milwaukee-based multiconcept operator Hospitality Democracy, said his restaurants, notably two-unit casual-dining burger concept AJ Bombers, are showing up in Graph Search results for a few customers testing out the search tool because he has spent years growing their likes and check-ins.
“That work we do to connect to those customers walking through our door and getting them to like our page and interact with us is what has made us prominent in Graph Search,” Sorge said. “It has everything to do with how connected you are to multiple friends who know each other.”
He added that location-based social platforms that link in with a person’s Facebook feed, like Facebook Places or Foursquare, would be important sources of activity to increase visibility in Graph Search. “If you haven’t been encouraging check-ins on a mobile app, it’s worth doing so now,” he said.
Social-media experts noted that the part check-ins would play in Graph Search, as well as the fact that people would use the tool to search for recommended restaurants nearest to them, would necessitate brands to manage local Facebook pages for each location they have.
Rob Reed, chief executive of MomentFeed, suggested in a blog post that brands need to claim local pages of their units by managing all pages through Facebook’s “Parent-Child” function for brand pages, and then make sure all those pages are updated with accurate location information and contact information.
If companies do not have individual location pages, they “need to start building pages for local branches in order to reap the benefits offered by Graph Search, because it’s going to act as a digital Yellow Pages,” Erica McClenny, vice president of social-media software firm Expion, wrote in an email to Nation’s Restaurant News. “It works for Web or mobile platforms, making it the key factor in ensuring that your storefronts will show up in a user’s search.”
McClenny reiterated that each local page should have accurate location information, including a street address and GPS coordinates, in its “About” section.
Not quite a Yelp killer
Experts and operators have speculated that if users successfully find new restaurants in Graph Search, the tool could become competitive with other online services such as traditional search engines or Yelp.com.
“Social Graph’s ability to use people-centered information rather than mere SEO terms engenders trust between Facebook users based on likes,” Jitendra Gupta, chief executive of mobile-loyalty firm Punchh, wrote in a recent blog post. “In other words, if my graph of Facebook friends likes these restaurants, then I may trust its suggestions more than those from a search engine.”
He added, however, that Social Graph might aggregate which restaurants have the most likes among a user’s friends, but could neglect “richer customer data such as details of actual restaurant visits and opinions about food and service.”
The fact that Graph Search results would be displayed only within Facebook and would not get aggregated by external search engines like Google or Bing means that Graph Search likely would have a long way to go before seriously blunting the influence of Yelp, Arnold said.
“Search within Facebook is only within Facebook, so that’s kind of the downside,” she said. “Today, when we search, it’s likely on Google or Yahoo, and nothing within Facebook plays into that. If I Google Culver’s, the Yelp review comes up much higher than the link to the Facebook page [in search results].
“I don’t think Graph Search is going to overtake Yelp,” she continued, “unless Facebook opens their capability up to outside search — which I don’t think will happen — or we all go to Facebook for searching.”
Milwaukee restaurateur Sorge was more optimistic that many customers would eventually use Social Graph to find restaurants — and trust their friends far more than anonymous Yelp reviewers.
“The relief from a ‘Yelp effect’ is probably true, but the best part about Graph Search is if you’re in a city where you know some people but you’re not from there, now there’s direct word-of-mouth instead of just Yelp reviews,” Sorge said.
Sorge projected that when Facebook likely opens up Graph Search down the road to brands for opportunities for paid search results, he could seed Graph Search results to reach a very specific audience.
“If I came up with a new bacon burger and bought a Graph Search result, I could reach people who like AJ Bombers and like bacon,” he said. “I spend money on Facebook ads every month to promote posts and increase our audience and likes. I absolutely see the value in Facebook advertising, so making it more relevant and content-specific with Graph Search makes me want to use it more.”